Speakers Push Air

December 30, 2007, 9:39 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

Since a folk album heading my 2007 chart would once have seemed as unlikely as Bono making Man Of The Year, I should probably qualify things. On the whole, and with a very small number of exceptions, I really don’t like folk music, and particularly English folk music. I find most of it dusty and dry and mannered and dull, no matter how much people tell me it’s thriving and vital and honest and alive. Worst of all is any attempt at some folk fusion project (if I see the names McCarthy and Zephaniah on the same bill, for instance, I know something horrible is happening). I’m not even keen on all this Banhardt, Espers, Vespers blah blah blah acid folk boom nonsense. The odd act makes the grade (true of most genres, I guess) and sometimes – in this instance, perhaps Joanna Newsom is the key example – an artist totally transcends any genre-based silliness.

So. On the day after my birthday this year, my girlfriend cooked me a lovely post-birthday lunch and we sat, hungover and happy, in our kitchen, munching a Pieminister pie (the wild mushroom and asparagus, since you ask) and listening to Smart Bob on BBC Radio London. He had a folk act in session on the show, and they did an acapella song live. By the time the song finished, I was close to tears, and when I looked up, my girlfriend was flat-out sobbing. And that’s when I discovered Rachel Unthank & The Winterset.

Not long after, we got tickets to some fairly low-key folk club in Islington (booked, I suspect, before the music press really got behind them). I was hesistant about the whole thing, to be honest, and sure enough, it was mostly horrible, reinforcing all the things I hate about the folk scene. The evangelical, thumbs-in-belt loops heartiness of the posh twat running it; the dreadful support slot – the kind of guy who makes James Taylor seem like Boyd Rice; the self-congratulatory smugness. Our friend did a stunning open mic slot on her hurdy gurdy (honestly!) and went down a storm, but other than that I hated the whole experience, pretty much.

And then the Winterset came on and performed in a manner quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Genuinely intimate and unassuming and chatty between songs, but utterly spellbinding and focussed during them. Rachel and her sister Becky – the one perky and confident, the other quite melancholy and diffident, but both with rich wonderful Northumbrian voices (I’m sitting writing this now in a house a short walk from the Northumbrian village the sisters grew up in), an excellent violinist and a pianist who also arranges a lot of the material, writes some songs and has a fantastic line in end-of-the-pier banter.

By the 3rd song, people were in pieces all round us. By the end, I thought the floor would give from the stamping and cheering and general ecstatic reactions they were getting. I ran into an old, old friend at the gig who tried to convince me there was lots more folk music out there this good, and I really should check out the other names he suggested some time soon. But to me, what makes the Winterset stand out is that somehow they’ve managed to produce something that is really traditional, really true to its origins, but not crippled by them; that has managed to incorporate modern songwriting and styles without watering down what they’re doing. Treading that fine line seems beyond almost anyone else I’ve encountered on that scene, but I’d love to be proved wrong…

Strangely, there are a couple of songs on this record I actively dislike – meandering, pointless little exercises in not much. But the rest of the album is so heartbreaking and uplifting and beautiful and full of wonder that The Bairns still makes the top spot. From a medley of proper ‘hey nonny’ folk songs (complete with clog dance) to a Robert Wyatt cover and a Bonnie Prince Billy snippet, there’s a real range here but it’s all still rooted in the same thing – two fantastic voices and some simple instrumentation. As with the STFU album, this one is worth two tracks I think – the first an arrangement of a fairly well-know (apparently) folk song about domestic violence, the second the aforementioned Wyatt cover. If these don’t do it for you – regardless of any misgivings you might have about folk music in general – you should be shot in the street like a diseased dog. Happy Xmas.

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset – Sea Song
from the album The Bairns (EMI Records)

Honourable Mention…
December 30, 2007, 8:27 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

OK, before the main event, here are some of the albums that almost made the list from 2007..

The Fall – Reformation Post TLC / Boredoms -77 Boardrums (didn’t make the list because I don’t think it was ever released officially) / Surgeon – This Is For You Shits / Gallon Drunk – The Rotten Mile / Kitty, Daisy & Lewis – The Roots of Rock’N’Roll / Southern Culture On The Skids – Countrypolitan Favourites / PJ Harvey – White Chalk / Disrupt – Foundation Bit / Bjork – Volta / Soulsavers – It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s The Way You Land / Ricardo Villalobos – Fabric / Misty’s Big Adventure – Funny Times / Low – Drums & Guns / The Go! Team – Proof Of Youth / Dizzee Rascal – Maths & English / The National – Boxer / The Broken Family Band – Hello Love (the first time they haven’t made my end of year chart in about 4 years, but the new album is just a bit… indie) / Alabama 3 – MOR / Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand / Bill Callahan – Woke On A Whaleheart / Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends / Lee Scratch Perry – Ape-ology / Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala / Of Montreal -hissing fauna, are you the destroyer /  Billy Childish – Christmas Album /

December 30, 2007, 8:02 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

OK, then. New York hipsters blah blah blah blah. Punk funk blah blah blah. Mark E Smith does disco blah blah blah.

Fuck all that, there’s real heart and soul to LCD Soundsystem. I’d pretty much written them off as a particularly danceable gag, first time round. The singles from the first album were funny and knowing but pretty insubstantial, and the album was the singles and then some other stuff that was like the singles only less so. And I thought that was that. Then I heard North American Scum and while it was a great dance track, it was essentially more ironic hipster wit.

They headlined Electric Picnic festival on the Friday night, and since they didn’t clash with anything (and since we had a couple of pills) we decided to give it a go. We expected a couple of laptops onstage, a lot of cowbells and maybe some pretty visuals. What we got a was a full band experience that seemed to encompass New Order at their very best (in fact, New Order had played what I think was their last show in the exact same slot in 2006), a proper banging rave and all sorts of other euphoric and wonderful stuff. I believe at one point, I did actually have my hands in the air, and I think my girlfriend might have been hugging a stranger.

And the album? It’s a proper album – it’s sequenced the way albums used to be, with no thought for the shuffle-addicted tendencies of most listeners these days. What’s amazing is that while in some ways  Murphy’s influences are even more explicit than on the debut, he’s found new power in these things and lyrically there’s real depth here. Like everyone (probably), it’s All My Friends and Someone Great that really stand out, and it’s the former I’m posting. But as with many of these albums, pretty much anything would have done. So then, All My Friends – the greatest New Order song ever…

LCD Soundsystem – All My Friends
from the album Sound of Silver (DFA Recordings)

December 30, 2007, 7:26 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

Warning: dangerously fan-boy moment ahead.

I seem to have this personal roll-call of great lost artists and bands, bands that to my mind would have been astronomically successfully and universally acclaimed in any sane world. The Rockingbirds (the archetypal Camden cowboys – see below), Prolapse, Killdozer… OK, maybe not Prolapse, they were never going to be contenders. But they’re still better than your favourite band, you goon.

And the Afghan Whigs. The Afghan Whigs did pretty well, really, in the heyday of (spit) grunge. But they didn’t do well enough, and they didn’t get the absurd degree of acclaim they deserved. Boxed in with the ugly, lumpen, plaid shirt scene when they were just something… other. Funky as hell (honestly!), dark, fucked-up, funny. Frontman Greg Dulli’s tales of sexual guilt and.. well, OK, mostly just sexual guilt, were a million miles away from the usual ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m going down the garden to take smack, smack, smack’ of most of their contemporaries. Musically they were just unique – sure, they had ‘grunge’ elements (and admittedly their early releases were plaid enough and hairy enough to fit the bill). But there was a genuine funk to this stuff, and not in the cold dead funk-rock way. You could hear it best live, as their ever-longer shows (featuring ever-bigger bands, with backing vocalists, brass sections, percussionists, the works) incorporated more and more snippets of hip-hop hits and soul and funk classics. They released a handful of astonishing soul covers, as well as breathtaking reworkings of The Temple (from Jesus Christ Superstar) and If I Only Had A Heart (from Wizard of Oz). And that’s why the tedious, bloated, loathsome likes of Stone Temple fucking Pilots and Sound-fucking-garden should never even be mentioned in the same breath.

I must have seen them half-a-dozen times, and they were never short of absolutely fucking miraculous. Dulli was like a cross between Elvis and Joaquin Phoenix and I think I actually had crush on him. Maybe still do…  They split up a few years back – drugs, injuries, burn-out, and Dulli most of all has really spread his wings since (Bjork covers, working with Fila Brazilia, a new project with Mark Lanegan) but they got back together earlier this year to record two new tracks for a ‘best of..’. And that, my friends, is how I’ve justified sticking a compilation of tracks by a long-defunct band into a 2007 albums round-up.

The tracklisting is, as always with these things, an argument waiting to happen: how it doesn’t include recurring track Milez Is Ded / Birth Of The Cool / Untitled (which cropped up numerous times in numerous forms) is beyond me. But it does a pretty good job, and it has the best tracks from their most complete album, Gentleman, one of which I’m posting. For the record, the new tracks pretty much suck, but that really doesn’t matter. Just LISTEN to this..

The Afghan Whigs – Debonair
from the album Unbreakable (A Retrospective) (Rhino Records)

December 30, 2007, 7:01 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

Authenticity is a fairly bogus concept in music at the best of times, but I do remember the first time I saw Southern Tenant Folk Union, playing at the wonderful Come Down & Meet The Folks club in Islington. They seemed utterly authentic, if a disparate bunch of North London-based country and folk musicians ever could be authentic, playing a kind of country / gospel / bluegrass music. Even the austere, church-ified clothing fitted perfectly. The main singer (although they all take occasional leads and contribute totally wonderful harmonies) even has a kind of upstanding, earnest quality that could see him in a movie of some Faulkner novel, or Wiseblood or something equally southern gothic.

I’ve seen various members in other bands (The Coal Porters spring to mind), but this is something different – a world apart from a lot of the other Camden cowboys you see so often at these gigs (I’m not knocking them, there’s some real talent on that scene). But Southern Tenant Folk Union seem complete somehow, and totally beguiling.

After that first encounter, I managed to miss them until the end of the summer this  year, when we caught them at the very end of a long Electric Picnic festival near Dublin. There were all sorts of other mainstage attractions, but sitting watching STFU in a small tent made to look like a little church hall (bunting and cake and all) was a perfect way to end a long and tiring festival season.

The album is wonderful, short and to the point and just perfectly formed. It’s also probably the most obscure selection in this whole Top 20, so I really hope that somebody is won over by them. To that end, I’m going to post what I think are the two stand-out tracks (it’s a close thing, to be honest – every track on there should convince..)

Southern Tenant Folk Union – Here In The Dock

Southern Tenant Folk Union – A Little Deeper
both from the self-titled debut album (Ugly Nephew Records)

December 30, 2007, 2:24 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

Mark Lamarr commented the other day on his end of year round-up show that he didn’t really see the difference between The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, which strikes me as an absurd comment. Much as I love The Bad Seeds, they haven’t been truly ferocious for a long time, and Cave’s apparent intention with Grinderman was to break out of his traditional styles and formats, which mostly involved him forsaking the piano for the guitar and writing with the band. And it has really made a difference – there’s a really vicious and gleeful energy to Grinderman. All the carping about mid life crisis-afflicted males rocking out one last time is negated by Cave’s lyrics explicitly acknowledging this aspect, in a really amusing way (Cave’s always maintained he’s primarily a comic writer of some kind, which hasn’t always been particularly convincing, but comes to the fore here).

I think I must have seen an early Grinderman show, in all but name – a Cave gig at the Victoria Theatre billed as an acoustic show and featuring the Grinderman line-up. It was blistering stuff and not ‘acoustic’ in any MTV Unplugged sense. (I also found myself standing next to Will Self and wondering about the parallels between him and Cave, but that’s another post, if I can ever be bothered – but jovial gargoyles both, surely?), although I don’t recall Cave playing guitar at all.

So anyway – noisy, lecherous, wonderfully dumb in places. The most ‘fun’ Cave album since Murder Ballads.

Grinderman – No Pussy Blues
from the album Grinderman (Mute Records)

December 28, 2007, 1:08 pm
Filed under: 2007 Top 20

After the last couple of overwritten entries, I almost can’t be bothered to write about this one at all. I’d be surprised if any one album has been so discussed, so analysed and theorised about, and I really can’t add anything much. But, in brief, Untrue is beautiful, haunting, unsettling and utterly unique. It’s not dubstep (more like washed out two-step, I guess) and it’s not the coffee table / Massive Attack album some are accusing it of being. I don’t care who Burial is (or isn’t. For the record, it’s not me). I just want him to keep making music like this.

Of course, if I had any originality I’d have chosen a track other than Etched Headplate to upload. But since most of you probably already have this album – or at least have heard it – I wanted to choose the track most likely to lead the others to check out the rest of the album. And that has to be Etched Headplate. After all these weeks, it doesn’t seem to get any less disturbing and melancholy.

Burial – Etched Headplate
from the album Untrue (Hyperdub)